Ranchers donate to communities
Montana ranchers are participating in a unique program processing donated animals and giving the meat to people who need food.
The Producer Partnership is the brainchild of fifth-generation rancher Matt Pierson. His family owns Highland Livestock and have ranched in Montana since the mid-1890s.
How it began
Matt played soccer growing up and started coaching as a senior in high school because their small town didn’t have anyone to help with the younger kids. He continued coaching while his own kids were growing up.
“I know most of the families. When the pandemic hit, everyone was sheltering in place, and there were food shortages in grocery stores,” Matt said.
One day during spring calving, he and his hired men were working cows and one of the guys said, “Look at all this hamburger walking around!”
Matt suddenly realized they had a way to help.
“We made phone calls to neighbors to see if they had any cull cows and I called local meat processors,” he explained. Matt started with a cull cow of his own and the next day delivered 350 pounds of burger to the Livingston Food Resource Center. This was the beginning of The Producer Partnership.
Within a month, 10 neighbors and friends had donated nearly 10,000 pounds of ground beef to local food banks, food pantries and other area community centers.
“Within three days, more than $12,000 was donated.
Each food bank we supplied sent a tax letter to the producers so they could have a tax deduction,” he said. “Soon we had more hamburger than people locally could use, so we started sending some to neighboring counties.”
Producers can bring donated animals to the Public Auction Yards in Billings, Mont. or Highland Livestock.
The Producer Partnership started in April 2020, and by November they had non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Overcoming processing challenges
The next step was to expand across the state, but there’s a huge shortage of custom processors – people wait in line to have animals butchered.
“I took animals anywhere accepting them, sometimes as far away as Williston, N.D. By the end of 2020 we realized get- ting animals processed was a tougher issue than we could handle. We’d missed out on a lot of meat because we couldn’t get the animals to a butcher,” he said.
Even so, by the end of 2020, The Producer Partnership donated 53,345 pounds of hamburger to many people across Montana. The next step was to build their own meat-processing facility.
They will process not only cattle, but any donated pigs, sheep, goats and domestic bison.
“We won’t do any wild game, but we’ve already done several species of domestic animals. Early on, we could have done semi-loads of pigs, but 14 were all I could find processing for,” Matt said.
“We were frustrated because we were missing many opportunities. People would drop off donated cows at our ranch, and sometimes it would take us so long to get them scheduled for processing, some would go downhill. I had to put two of them down. It was frustrating to get an animal in good shape and then not be able to do something with it. After the second one, we decided we had to create our own facility.”
This will be the first federally-inspected non-profit processing facility.
“We’ll do some custom processing for customers, to make a little money to offset costs – working with local producers who sell meat directly to consumers at farmers’ markets or online. They need a place to process animals. There is a huge need for this service,” he said.
Expanding into other states
As of mid-January, 95,967 pounds of meat have been donated to people in need.
“We hope to more than double this in the next year by having our own facility. We are trying to do something no one has ever done before,” he said.
“One of my goals is to replace all the meat the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) needs in a year, which is about 170,000 to 175,000 pounds annually. I want to provide this at no charge, and then contact every school in Montana and offer free meat. This would be a great way to prove we don’t need to wait for the government to step in to fix these issues. We need to get these things done our- selves,” Matt said.
His group is also working on becoming a training ground for future butchers.
“I want to open a school here, with housing onsite for students. We’d like to take four to six students at a time. We would pay people to come to school, and in six months they would leave with a degree and a full understanding of how to process meat. One of the challenges in business is difficulty finding trained employees and keeping them. Why not pay people to learn how to do this?” Matt explained.
“Roughly eight percent of cows get culled each year, so that’s about 240,000 cows per year leaving the state. If I can get my hands on 1,000 of those cows, I could easily supply everything the MFBN needs,” Matt said.
In Livingston, Mont., the food bank was giving one pound of hamburger per family of four per week.
“Now we help them give three pounds for each family of four per week; we’ve maintained this since the pandemic started,”headded.
“My goal is to find 1,000 animals in 2022. It doesn’t matter if they are pigs, goats or sheep – so long as we get the equivalent of 1,000 cows. Most producers want to help but don’t have time to connect the dots.We want a system which will do it for them. If they want their animal to go to a specific need, such as a certain school, we can track the animal all the way through and give the school 300 pounds of hamburger from that producer,” he said.
“The project is expanding and taking on a life of its own. I never would have dreamed I’d start a non-profit program, or something which would jump this fast,”Matt concluded.
The processing facility is expected to open in mid-May.
For more information, visit producerpartnership. com.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.